Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Reflection on our November, 2007 Diocesan Convention


Our Church School Director, Liz Buchanan, was our preacher this past Sunday at St. Andrew's, and during the week I spent some time working on the following reflection--a version of which I shared with our Vestry at our November 13, 2007 Meeting. I share it here as well.


Rector’s Notes Regarding the Concerns of our Diocesan Family


As has been widely reported, at the 142nd Annual Convention of our Diocese of Pittsburgh earlier this month an amendment to our diocesan constitution was approved that would remove language describing our diocesan “constitutional” connection to the Episcopal Church and make it then possible for future Conventions at any time to “align” the diocese with any other Province of the Anglican Communion.

In order for any amendment to the diocesan constitution to take effect, it must be approved by two successive Annual Conventions, and so this amendment remains "pending" until it is approved again, or disapproved, next fall (since the Constitution requires the Annual Convention to be held in October or November).

At present, as I understand it, the intention of those designing this process seems to be that if and when this constitutional amendment comes into effect, the Convention would need to adopt a canon stating that the “alignment” of the diocese is with the Episcopal Church--or, as it could be, with some other Province of the Anglican Communion. This would simply be a matter of majority vote at Convention.

In fact, it appears to be the desire of the majority of our diocesan leadership to move as quickly as possible from “alignment” with the Episcopal Church to “realignment” with another Province of the Communion.

On the other hand, however, the position of the Episcopal Church appears to be that the initiative described here is simply “null and void,” a legal and constitutional impossibility.

The Episcopal Church would maintain that while it is entirely possible for any group of Episcopalians to leave the Episcopal Church and then to join another church or to form a new denominational entity, the “diocese itself” continues to exist as a corporate and legal entity of the Episcopal Church and so by its nature cannot be removed or “realigned.”

Thus there are two contrasting legal theories.

In the former, which is the one maintained by the majority of Convention this past month, and by our bishop, the diocesan institution as such remains intact as it “realigns.” Individual clergy, laity, and congregations who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church when a "realignment" might happen would need to take an affirmative action to leave, under conditions that would be defined by canons of the diocese.

In the latter, those who are “realigning” are the ones who are “leaving the diocese.” They as individuals are free to leave, and free to join or form a new church or denomination, but as they depart they leave the legal, institutional entity of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh behind, continuing to be made up of those clergy, laity, and parishes who acknowledge the authority of the Episcopal Church.

At issue here will be a sense of identity, on one hand, and the legal authority to maintain possession of assets and to be held responsible for obligations in continuity with the present diocesan structure.

The same set of legal questions will be in play having to do with parish assets and obligations. If the “realignment” of the diocese is found to be legal, parishes would be "realigned" as well as a default setting with whatever Province of the Anglican Communion identified by Convention--maintaining their continuity of leadership and their control of property and other assets.

If the “realignment” of the diocese is found to be null and void, then parish assets will be able to be held and managed only by leaders and congregational or diocesan entities subject to the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church.

The resolution of this difference of legal opinion may be able to be by negotiation and mediation, if agreement can be found that would satisfy those within our diocese wishing to “realign,” those not wishing to “realign,” and with the approval of the authorities of the Episcopal Church. If such a resolution and agreement isn’t possible, it’s likely that the matter would move to the courts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for a final determination.

I would mention that legal history to date suggests a bias in favor of hierarchical authorities, though the specific questions raised here have not been considered. Most legal authorities not related to the potentially disputing parties have indicated to me that the courts will almost certainly find in favor of the jurisdiction of the national Episcopal Church. However, final resolution of the legal question in the courts could take years and would doubtless be very costly, so there might still be some motivation to bring even the “likely victor” of the dispute to a process of negotiation.

Through all this, what is clear is that at some point – perhaps when the “realignment” takes place according to the scenario described above, or perhaps if some earlier catalyst comes into view – there will be born from our present Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh two diocesan “entities,” each with significant continuity from the present diocese (in terms of people, corporate memory, etc.). One of these “entities” will continue to be under the jurisdiction of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and one will not. Again, the question of assets, obligations, and institutional identity may take time to resolve.


At the present moment, in my best judgment, the diocesan entity that will continue to be under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church will include approximately 1/3rd of our diocesan congregations (perhaps 20 or so), with additionally a number of congregational “remnants”—smaller groups, formerly members of congregations that have chosen to be a part of the diocesan entity that will cease to be aligned with the Episcopal Church. My guess is that about 1/4th of our diocesan clergy, or perhaps a slightly larger segment—Rectors and other clergy in parish ministry, clergy in non-parochial ministry, deacons, retired clergy—will in this same context choose to remain in the diocesan entity “under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church.” (Which means about 2/3rds of our congregations and 3/4ths of our clergy will choose to be a part of the “realigned” diocese.)

The problems ahead for both these successor “dioceses” will be enormous. The “realigning” entity will be challenged immediately by the Episcopal Church over any effort to maintain control of assets or corporate identity. Individual congregations within the “realigning” group may also find themselves challenged over issues of assets or identity by members of their congregations who, as a minority, do not wish to be a part of the “realignment.”

It is likewise unknown what kinds of challenges the “realigning” entity might attempt to bring against parishes that choose to remain “under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church.” To date there has not been a direct threat of such challenge, but it certainly would be na├»ve not to acknowledge the possibility.

The “realigned” diocese will also have substantial challenges related to life in the wider church. Its relationship with other entities, foreign Provinces, and the corporate life of the Anglican Communion will not be easily defined. Certainly there is no clarity about any of this at this point.

Likewise, the diocese “under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church” will find itself bereft of nearly all constitutional leadership and offices of governance and without administrative memory—and, at least initially, without staff, material structures, or resources.

Even while the wider “macrospheric” legal issues are in the process of resolution, these more direct and immediate problems of relationship, governance, and administration will need to be need to be addressed.


While the formal dissolution of our present diocesan life may be many months away, it is now, I believe, inevitable. Therefore it is my opinion that the considerable (and understandable) energies that have over the past few years gone into the debate over whether it “should” happen, and over the provoking issues, could now be directed toward more productive goals.

One of the first things that will need to happen is that members of our wider diocesan family will need to make a decision about “where they will end up” when the event takes place. Individuals, for example, will make a decision about that on a personal basis and then will need to determine whether as a result of that decision they should remain in their present congregation, begin to prepare to form or move to a new congregation. Likewise congregational leadership, Rectors, Wardens, and Vestries, will need to lead their congregations and make decisions about their future diocesan affiliation.

As is already taking place, leadership in the group planning to “realign” will need to organize themselves internally and externally for the challenges ahead. Congregations will almost certainly need to obtain or share legal counsel and to engage with other congregations and with the “realigning” diocesan leadership and staff in necessary preparations.

Likewise, clergy and lay leadership in the group planning to be a part of a diocese “under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church” will need to begin to identify their position, to make congregational or shared provision for legal counsel, and to work together to begin planning for continuity of governance and administration once the present instruments of governance and administration cease to function within the jurisdictional parameters of the Episcopal Church.

A further and significant challenge for both groups will be found in their diversity. The “realigning” diocese may find general agreement on the question of whether or not it is desirable to remain within the Episcopal Church, but there are clearly many differences that will remain—theological differences defining more-Catholic and more-Evangelical beliefs, differences of opinion about leadership, about forms of governance, about worship, polity, discipline of clergy and laity, the character of ordained ministry and the status of those (women, divorced-and-remarried, etc.) who might not be recognized in all corners of the “realigning” entity.

At the same time, among those of our present diocese who will choose to continue under the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church are many more-conservative , orthodox members who have largely supported the expressed concerns about the theological trends and culture of the Episcopal Church but who don’t feel that “realignment” is the appropriate way to express or resolve those concerns, and many more-liberal, progressive members who have strongly supported the theological and cultural trends of the Episcopal Church.

These two groups have functioned in a contentious and adversarial way in the political life of the present diocese, and there is a significant danger that they may continue the same “battles,” as it were, in the new, much smaller diocesan entity that they will form together. In a dramatically smaller structure and with much instability of resources, such adversarial behavior would likely be damaging and perhaps catastrophic. New patterns of respectful, transparent, and mutually accountable common life will need to be established, or the eventual success of this group will be imperiled, no matter what the result of the legal dispute with the “realigning” diocese.

Again, both these “internal to both groups” processes are clearly under way already, in formal or informal contexts, and they will need to continue and to advance more formally in the months ahead, with energy and commitment.

While the debate behind us has been sharp and sometimes acrimonious, and while the challenges ahead may not be easily resolved, it is my hope and prayer that these processes now may move forward in an atmosphere of reasoned and mutual respect, and with the affection that certainly should apply to relationships of Christian people who have shared deeply in such an important heritage and experience of ministry and mission.

Bruce R.

No comments: